The edict to support the troops comes with the assertion that every military man and woman should be seen as unquestioningly heroic and infallible. Any contrary behavior is to be considered an aberration, and certainly not the direct result of their experiences in the quagmire of the Iraq War. Writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) isn't buying it.
Haggis employs a cool, minimalist style without bombast or heated rhetoric to create a devastating portrait of the casualties of war on the home front (based on the 2003 death of Specialist Richard Davis). What makes In the Valley of Elah so effective is its directness, embodied in the person of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a no-nonsense, spit-and-polish military lifer.
A Vietnam veteran and retired member of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division, Hank has seen two sons follow his footsteps into military service. With so powerful an example at home, his wife (Susan Sarandon) asserts, the die was cast early on. So when Hank receives word that youngest son Michael (Jonathan Tucker) has returned safely from Iraq, but has gone missing and is reported AWOL, he knows something's not right.
With the clear-eyed certainty of an investigator, Hank drives cross-country to find out what's happened, and soon finds himself bogged down in a familiar bureaucracy. It's here that Elah appears to turn into a conventional mystery, as Hank joins forces with a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to discern Mike's fate. Like Hank, she sees the flaws in the law enforcement system, but still believes in the institution to provide structure and right wrongs.
In the Valley of Elah is deceptively simple in both its visual style and storyline. The widescreen images are sparse and naturalistic, utilizing a washed-out color palette that suggests well-worn desert fatigues. And while Hank goes through the motions of getting many little answers hoping to unravel the big one, the "why" remains slippery and elusive.
The performances here are so subdued (everyone seems to have adopted Jones' less-is-more philosophy) that the emotional impact is that much stronger. When one of Mike's closest combat buddies (Wes Chatham, a naval vet) finally relates a long-obfuscated tale, his dead eyes and flat intonation make his words absolutely chilling.
With powerful restraint, Elah explores just how deeply soldiers are affected by the battlefield, even when they return home with no visible scars.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.